By Uwe Siemon-Netto
Monday, Feb. 27, the Issues etc. program of station KFUO in St. Louis will continue its series of interviews on lay vocation. This series deals with God's many callings to service in the temporal realm. Today I shall reflect on the calling of physicians – to heal, not to kill.
For Lutherans believing that God calls every Christian to his or her secular vocation, there was very good news from three parts of the United States this week. In Pierre, S.D., the state senate voted to prohibit nearly all abortions. In Washington, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether a federal ban on partial birth abortions would be constitutional or not. And in California, two anesthesiologists refused to participate in the execution of Michael A. Morales, a rapist and murderer, thus delaying it for weeks, or months, perhaps forever.
Let’s start with that latter case. Regardless of how one feels about capital punishment, it is heartening to learn that these two doctors remembered what they were called to do in their professional lives – to heal, not to kill. Actually, their decision should not be news at all. They merely upheld what physicians had sworn to do throughout the civilized world for the last 2,400 years.
It is only in modern and postmodern times that the Hippocratic Oath has been so grievously broken by practitioners of a profession the ancient Greeks deemed sacred long before the dawn of Christianity. “With purity and holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art,” they promised in reciting this ancient vow. For medical doctors to torture to death concentration camp inmates, to kill those deemed “unworthy of living,” and to slaughter the unborn represents a breathtaking departure from natural law.
This is the law, Christians believe, God has written upon every human being’s heart. It informed the human conscience well before Christ, to wit the Hippocratic Oath, and it still does so even in societies that had not been reached by the Gospel. Healers are not killers, just as bakers aren’t plumbers. “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel,” wrote Hippocrates (c. 460 BC - c.380 BC), the universally acknowledged “Father of Medicine”). He went on, “I will not give a woman a pessary to produce abortion.”
Today, most students graduating from medical schools still swear vows of sorts but these have been emptied of much of the Hippocratic Oath’s substance. According to a 1993 survey of 150 North American medical schools, just three oaths forbid sexual contact with patients, a mere eight rule out abortions, 11 defer to a deity, and 14 forbid euthanasia.
In other words, the lament of one of my correspondents, a lawyer, about her own craft, appears to apply to medicine as well: many schools and professional associations have by and large retired natural law – an incomprehensible development given our outrage over the crimes physicians committed in Nazi and Soviet camps and hospitals.
It has always baffled me how any doctor can drive to work in the morning and with the insouciance of a hernia specialist kill the most innocent and most helpless human beings. How can he derive any joy from driving the Mercedes bought with his honoraria earned at a human slaughterhouse? How can he or she in good conscience suck the brain out of a baby’s head until the skull collapses, allowing the child’s tiny corpse to be pulled out of the birth canal? That’s what happens at partial birth abortions; it’s still “legal” in the juridical sense of the word, though clearly not just.
For centuries, physicians enjoyed the reputation of being the most God-fearing of all secular professions. The good news is and that by all indications this still seems to be the case to a considerable extent. It is significant that the number of abortion clinics around the United States is declining and only few hospitals are prepared to perform this operation. In predominantly Lutheran South Dakota – bless this state – there is only one such clinic left and no local doctor is prepared to work there. They have to fly one in from Minnesota. One wonders about that doctor’s sense of calling, but thank God it’s only him (or her) and not scores.
Optimism is a childish category, said the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. So let me be childish and rejoice in the revitalized sense of calling displayed this week by doctors, legislators and judges. Perhaps optimism is not the right word here. Hope would probably be the more appropriate term.